Some novels are difficult to categorise: labels slide off them, descriptors are inadequate. And, if plots are vague or slippery and characters surreal, then what can I tell you? My advice is to take a risk: dive into the story, meet Billy Gould.
But first, a bit of history. Sarah Island in Macquarie Harbour on the remote west coast of Van Diemen’s Land (now Tasmania) was a tiny penal settlement, established in 1821. In 1827, William Buelow Gould was transported to Van Diemen’s Land for theft. In 1829, William Buelow Gould was sentenced to three years on Sarah Island for forging a banknote. William Buelow Gould was granted a certificate of freedom in 1835. He was a noted artist, and Gould’s ‘Sketchbook of Fishes’ was produced around 1832. If you were to travel to Sarah Island today, there are few signs of its use as a penal settlement. The penal settlement was closed in 1833, and William Buelow Gould and the other prisoners were transferred to Port Arthur.
And so we move from bare bones of fact into some wonderfully florid fiction. From now on, William Buelow Gould will become Billy Gould. In this novel, according to Billy, there was a scheme to transform this tiny, remote island into a city state, a trading centre, a new Venice, a cultural hub to rival European cities.
And Billy’s place in this? The Surgeon on Sarah Island had scientific aspirations. He thought that presenting paintings of the different species of fish around Van Diemen’s Land would impress the London elite. Billy, as a forger, was just the man for the job. Billy starts hesitantly
‘A fish, on the other hand, is not an easy item to forge.’
but then becomes obsessed.
Painting fish gives Billy opportunities not available to his fellow prisoners and enables him to mix with some of the officials. Importantly, he has access to better food. There are other elements to remind us of the purpose of the penal colony, of the cruel and sometimes unusual punishments. There’s humour, perhaps, in the prison surgeon being eaten by his giant pig Castlereagh but not in some of the other occurrences including the murder of Indigenous peoples. What can else I tell you about this novel? One day I intend to reread it. The real William Buelow Gould was a rascal, albeit a talented one. I’ve admired a number of William Buelow Gould’s paintings and I am aware that his original sketchbook of fishes is held by the Allport Library and Museum of Fine Arts, in the State Library of Tasmania. Unfortunately, because of its age and condition it is not available for general access. There is a digital version is available on the internet.
‘I am William Buelow Gould, & my name is a song that will be sung.’